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03. Chap I A Brief History Of The Art


This chapter is from the The History and Practice of the Art of Photography, by Henry H. Snelling. Published BY G. P. Putnam, 155 Broadway, 1849.

03. Chap I A Brief History Of The Art

As in all cases of great and valuable inventions in science and art the English lay claim to the honor of having first discovered that of Photogenic drawing. But we shall see in the progress of this history, that like many other assumptions of their authors, priority in this is no more due them, then the invention of steamboats, or the cotton gin.

This claim is founded upon the fact that in 1802 Mr. Wedgwood recorded an experiment in the Journal of the Royal Institution of the following nature.

"A piece of paper, or other convenient material, was placed upon a frame and sponged over with a solution of nitrate of silver; it was then placed behind a painting on glass and the light traversing the painting produced a kind of copy upon the prepared paper, those parts in which the rays were least intercepted being of the darkest hues. Here, however, terminated the experiment; for although both Mr. Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davey experimented carefully, for the purpose of endeavoring to fix the drawings thus obtained, yet the object could not be accomplished, and the whole ended in failure."

This, by their own showing, was the earliest attempt of the English savans. But this much of the principle was known to the Alchemists at an early date-- although practically produced in another way--as the following experiment, to be found in old books, amply proves.

"Dissolve chalk in aquafortis to the consistence of milk, and add to it a strong solution of silver; keep this liquor in a glass bottle well stopped; then cutting out from a piece of paper the letters you would have appear, paste it on the decanter, and lay it in the sun's rays in such a manner that the rays may pass through the spaces cut out of the paper and fall on the surface of the liquor the part of the glass through which the rays pass will be turned black, while that under the paper remains white; but particular care must be observed that the bottle be not moved during the operation."

Had not the alchemists been so intent upon the desire to discover the far famed philosopher's stone, as to make them unmindful of the accidental dawnings of more valuable discoveries, this little experiment in chemistry might have induced them to prosecute a more thorough search into the principle, and Photogenic art would not now, as it is, be a new one.

It is even asserted that the Jugglers of India were for many ages in possession of a secret by which they were enabled, in a brief space, to copy the likeness of any individual by the action of light. This fact, if fact it be, may account for the celebrated magic mirrors said to be possessed by these jugglers, and probable cause of their power over the people.

However, as early as 1556 the fact was established that a combination of chloride and silver. called, from its appearance, horn silver, was blackened by the sun's rays; and in the latter part of the last century Mrs. Fulhame published an experiment by which a change of color was effected in the chloride of gold by the agency of light; and gave it as her opinion that words might be written in this way. These incidents are considered as the first steps towards the discovery of the Photogenic art.

Mr. Wedgwood's experiments can scarcely be said to be any improvement on them since he failed to bring them to practical usefulness, and his countrymen will have to be satisfied with awarding the honor of its complete adaptation to practical purposes, to MM. Niepce and Daguerre of France, and to Professors Draper, and Morse of New-York.

These gentlemen--MM. Niepce and Daguerre--pursued the subject simultaneously, without either, however being aware of the experiments of his colleague in science. For several years, each pursued his researches individually until chance made them acquainted, when they entered into co-partnership, and conjointly brought the art almost to perfection.

M. Niepce presented his first paper on the subject to the Royal Society in 1827, naming his discovery Heliography. What led him to the study of the principles of the art I have no means, at present, of knowing, but it was probably owing to the facts recorded by the Alchemists, Mrs. Fulhame and others, already mentioned. But M. Daguerre, who is a celebrated dioramic painter, being desirous of employing some of the singularly changeable salts of silver to produce a peculiar class of effects in his paintings, was led to pursue an investigation which resulted in the discovery of the Daguerreotype, or Photogenic drawing on plates of copper coated with silver.

To this gentleman--to his liberality--are we Americans indebted for the free use of his invention; and the large and increasing class of Daguerrean artists of this country should hold him in the most profound respect for it. He was not willing that it should be confined to a few individuals who might monopolise the benefits to be derived from its practice, and shut out all chance of improvement. Like a true, noble hearted French gentleman he desired that his invention should spread freely throughout the whole world. With these views he opened negociations with the French government which were concluded most favorably to both the inventors, and France has the "glory of endowing the whole world of science and art with one of the most surprising discoveries that honor the land."

Notwithstanding this, it has been patented in England and the result is what might have been expected: English pictures are far below the standard of excellence of those taken by American artists. I have seen some medium portraits, for which a guinea each had been paid, and taken too, by a celebrated artist, that our poorest Daguerreotypists would be ashamed to show to a second person, much less suffer to leave their rooms.

CALOTYPE, the name given to one of the methods of Photogenic drawing on paper, discovered, and perfected by Mr. Fox Talbot of England, is precisely in the same predicament, not only in that country but in the United States, Mr. Talbot being patentee in both. He is a man of some wealth, I believe, but he demands so high a price for a single right in this country, that none can be found who have the temerity to purchase.

The execution of his pictures is also inferior to those taken by the German artists, and I would remark en passant, that the Messrs. Mead exhibited at the last fair of the American Institute, (of 1848,) four Calotypes, which one of the firm brought from Germany last Spring, that for beauty, depth of tone and excellence of execution surpass the finest steel engraving.

When Mr. Talbot's patent for the United States expires and our ingenious Yankee boys have the opportunity, I have not the slightest doubt of the Calotype, in their hands, entirely superceding the Daguerreotype.

Let them, therefore, study the principles of the art as laid down in this little work, experiment, practice and perfect themselves in it, and when that time does arrive be prepared to produce that degree of excellence in Calotype they have already obtained in Daguerreotype.

It is to Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, the distinguished inventor of the Magnetic Telegraph, of New York, that we are indebted for the application of Photography, to portrait taking. He was in Paris, for the purpose of presenting to the scientific world his Electro-Magnetic Telegraph, at the time, (1838,) M. Daguerre announced his splendid discovery, and its astounding results having an important bearing on the arts of design arrested his attention. In his letter to me on the subject, the Professor gives the following interesting facts.

"The process was a secret, and negociations were then in progress, for the disclosure of it to the public between the French government and the distinguished discoverer. M. Daguerre had shown his results to the king, and to a few only of the distinguished savans, and by the advice of M. Arago, had determined to wait the action of the French Chambers, before showing them to any other persons. I was exceedingly desirous of seeing them, but knew not how to approach M. Daguerre who was a stranger to me. On mentioning my desire to Robert Walsh, Esq., our worthy Consul, he said to me; 'state that you are an American, the inventor of the Telegraph, request to see them, and invite him in turn to see the Telegraph, and I know enough of the urbanity and liberal feelings of the French, to insure you an invitation.' I was successfull in my application, and with a young friend, since deceased, the promising son of Edward Delevan, Esq., I passed a most delightful hour with M. Daguerre, and his enchanting sun-pictures. My letter containing an account of this visit, and these pictures, was the first announcement in this country of this splendid discovery."

"I may here add the singular sequel to this visit. On the succeeding day M. Daguerre paid me a visit to see the Telegraph and witness its operations. He seemed much gratified and remained with me perhaps two hours; two melancholy hours to him, as they afterwards proved; or while he was with me, his buildings, including his diorama, his studio, his laboratory, with all the beautiful pictures I had seen the day before, were consumed by fire. Fortunately for mankind, matter only was consumed, the soul and mind of the genius, and the process were still in existence."

On his return home, Professor Morse waited with impatience for the revelation of M. Daguerre's process, and no sooner was it published than he procured a copy of the work containing it, and at once commenced taking Daguerreotype pictures. At first his object was solely to furnish his studio with studies from nature; but his experiments led him into a belief of the practicability of procuring portraits by the process, and he was undoubtedly the first whose attempts were attended with success. Thinking, at that time, that it was necessary to place the sitters in a very strong light, they were all taken with their eyes closed.

Others were experimenting at the same time, among them Mr. Wolcott and Prof. Draper, and Mr. Morse, with his acustomed modesty, thinks that it would be difficult to say to whom is due the credit of the first Daguerreotype portrait. At all events, so far as my knowledge serves me, Professor Morse deserves the laurel wreath, as from him originated the first of our inumerable class of Daguerreotypists; and many of his pupils have carried the manipulation to very great perfection. In connection with this matter I will give the concluding paragraph of a private letter from the Professor to me; He says.

"If mine were the first, other experimenters soon made better results, and if there are any who dispute that I was first, I shall have no argument with them; for I was not so anxious to be the first to produce the result, as to produce it in any way. I esteem it but the natural carrying out of the wonderful discovery, and that the credit was after all due to Daguerre. I lay no claim to any improvements."

Since I commenced the compilation of this work, I have had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of an American gentleman--James M. Wattles Esq.-- who as early as 1828--and it will be seen, by what I have already stated, that this is about the same date of M. Niepce's discovery--had his attention attracted to the subject of Photography, or as he termed it "Solar picture drawing," while taking landscape views by means of the camera-obscura. When we reflect upon all the circumstances connected with his experiments, the great disadvantages under which be labored, and his extreme youthfullness, we cannot but feel a national pride--yet wonder--that a mere yankee boy, surrounded by the deepest forests, hundred of miles from the populous portion of our country, without the necessary materials, or resources for procuring them, should by the force of his natural genius make a discovery, and put it in practical use, to accomplish which, the most learned philosophers of Europe, with every requisite apparatus, and a profound knowledge of chemistry--spent years of toil to accomplish. How much more latent talent may now be slumbering from the very same cause which kept Mr. Wattles from publicly revealing his discoveries, viz; want of encouragement--ridicule!

At the time when the idea of taking pictures permanently on paper by means of the camera-obscura first occurred to him, he was but sixteen years of age, and under the instructions of Mr. Charles Le Seuer, (a talented artist from Paris) at the New Harmony school, Indiana. Drawing and painting being the natural bent of his mind, be was frequently employed by the professors to make landscape sketches in the manner mentioned. The beauty of the image of these landscapes produced on the paper in the camera-obscura, caused him to pause and admire them with all the ardor of a young artist, and wish that by some means, he could fix them there in all their beauty. From wishing he brought himself to think that it was not only possible but actually capable of accomplishment and from thinking it could, he resolved it should be done.

He was, however, wholly ignorant of even the first principles of chemistry, and natural philosophy, and all the knowledge he was enabled to obtain from his teachers was of very little service to him. To add to this, whenever he mentioned his hopes to his parents, they laughed at him, and bade him attend to his studies and let such moonshine thoughts alone--still he persevered, though secretly, and he met with the succes his peseverance deserved.

For the truth of his statement, Mr. Wattles refers to some of our most respectable citizens residing at the west, and I am in hopes that I shall be enabled to receive in time for this publication, a confirmation from one or more of these gentlemen. Be that as it may, I feel confident in the integrity of Mr. Wattles, and can give his statement to the world without a doubt of its truth.

The following sketch of his experiments and their results will, undoubtedly, be interesting to every American reader and although some of the profound philosophers of Europe may smile at his method of proceeding, it will in some measure show the innate genius of American minds, and prove that we are not far behind our trans-atlantic brethren in the arts and sciences.

Mr. Wattles says: "In my first efforts to effect the desired object, they were feeble indeed, and owing to my limited knowledge of chemistry-- wholly acquired by questioning my teachers--I met with repeated failures but following them up with a determined spirit, I at last produced, what I thought very fair samples--but to proceed to my experiments."

"I first dipped a quarter sheet of thin white writing paper in a weak solution of caustic (as I then called it) and dried it in an empty box, to keep it in the dark; when dry, I placed it in the camera and watched it with great patience for nearly half an hour, without producing any visible result; evidently from the solution being to weak. I then soaked the same piece of paper in a solution of common potash, and then again in caustic water a little stronger than the first, and when dry placed it in the camera. In about forty-five minutes I plainly percieved the effect, in the gradual darkening of various parts of the view, which was the old stone fort in the rear of the school garden, with the trees, fence, &c. I then became convinced of the practicability of producing beautiful solar pictures in this way; but, alas! my picture vanished and with it, all--no not all--my hopes. With renewed determination I began again by studying the nature of the preparation, and came to the conclusion, that if I could destroy the part not acted upon by the light without injuring that which was so acted upon, I could save my pictures. I then made a strong solution of sal. soda I had in the house, and soaked my paper in it, and then washed it off in hot water, which perfectly fixed the view upon the paper. This paper was very poor with thick spots, more absorbent than other parts, and consequently made dark shades in the picture where they should not have been; but it was enough to convince me that I had succeeded, and that at some future time, when I had the means and a more extensive knowledge of chemistry, I could apply myself to it again. I have done so since, at various times, with perfect success; but in every instance laboring under adverse circumstances."

I have very recently learned, that, under the present patent laws of the United States, every foreign patentee is required to put his invention, or discovery, into practical use within eighteen months after taking out his papers, or otherwise forfeit his patent. With regard to Mr. Talbot's Calotype patent, this time has nearly, if not quite expired, and my countrymen are now at perfect liberty to appropriate the art if they feel disposed. From the statement of Mr. Wattles, it will be perceived that this can be done without dishonor, as in the first instance Mr. Talbot had no positive right to his patent.

Photography; or sun-painting is divided, according to the methods adopted for producing pictures, into



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